OVERCOMING TOUGH TIMES
A Search for the Meaning of Suffering
March 8, 2009
The Book of Job is a true life story of a man who endured unspeakable pain, intense suffering, and catastrophic loss. In this series, Overcoming Tough Times, Ben Young embarks on a journey into the deep end of life in order to answer one of the most difficult questions ever posed.
Job had it all – faith, family, fortune, and fame…and he lost it all. He experienced the raw, rugged reality of suffering like we do – cold, tough, and seemingly random. We can’t control the amount of suffering and loss we will experience, but there is one thing we can control. Join Ben Young in the first message of this series as he takes a look at the life of Job and searches for meaning in the midst of suffering.
When I was about 6 years old, I was living in a town called Taylors, South Carolina (it is right outside of Greenville); I had a friend named Les Neely. And Les was rich because he had a swimming pool! I thought if you had a swimming pool back then, you were Bill Gates! You were loaded! I remember learning to swim at the Neely’s pool. Les and I would hang out in the shallow end because we didn’t know how to swim. Finally, we got the nerve to go into the deep end, but we didn’t go into the deep end; we kind of grabbed a hold of the edges of the pool and kind of shimmied around until we got to the deep end, and then we just held on with a white-knuckled grip! I remember shimming around to the deep end so many times around that pool that our finger tips, the pads, started to bleed. I guess we had seen some western movie, and we put the blood together—Now I’m blood brothers with that guy Les, although I haven’t seen him in 30 plus years! But we were scared of the deep end! I’ll be honest with you! I was only 6, but I had this thing about wanting to live, and I didn’t want to drown. I knew I couldn’t swim, and I knew if I got in too deep, then I would go right under to the drain, and that would not be a good thing!
I tell you that story today to say, we are embarking on a journey into the deep end of life. Really, we’re going to talk about being on the deep end of believing in God, or not believing in God. I would say this: If you are here, and you don’t believe in God; I want to challenge you to come for the next four Sundays as well. If you are here and you do believe in God, I want to challenge you to come for the next four Sundays. If you are here, and you doubt God right now—maybe you are doubting His goodness, or doubting His power. I want to challenge you to come the next four Sundays, because we are going to look at one of the most difficult questions in the entire world.
Just to rewind a little bit—back in the 70’s there was a guy by the name of Bill Bright who developed a Gospel tract called The Four Spiritual Laws. I want you to raise your hand and show your age with me if you remember—I see you there in Woodway Village, and the C-Gym. You raise your hands too if you remember The Four Spiritual Laws—a little orange tract. Does anybody remember that? Three people remember that! Okay! Let me give them to you quickly! It started off as a brilliant little Christian marketing tool. It really was! It said, just like there are physical laws in the universe, there are also spiritual laws—there are four spiritual laws.
The first spiritual law is that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. The second spiritual law is that we are separated from God’s love and plan because of sin. The third spiritual law is, Jesus Christ came, died on the Cross, and rose again on the third day so that we could be forgiven of sin. But the fourth spiritual law was the kicker. The fourth one was that you had to receive Christ into your life to get the benefits of forgiveness and eternal life. I want to camp out a little bit on the first spiritual law. God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life! Perhaps if that guy had to re-write that tract, he might put a little asterisk by that.
I was in Canada years ago, speaking at a conference there, and I remember meeting a lady there who told me her story. She grew up in a preacher’s home—I can relate to that. When she was in her 20’s, she found a great Christian guy! They fell madly in love and got married. They sensed that God had called them to be missionaries, so they went and served as missionaries in a foreign country for over 10 years. They came back to Canada and found themselves in a large city, and they wanted to do street ministry. They wanted to go into the inner city to help people who were hurting; to cloth the naked, to feed the hungry, and to give shelter to those who were roaming around the streets. They poured themselves into it. They eventually had two kids, and things were going great until one day, her husband came home and said, “Sweetheart, I’m not in love with you anymore. As a matter of fact, I’m in love with someone else, and God has told me to divorce you and marry her.” So he left. This lady was left by herself to raise these two kids alone. God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life!
I think about Jerry Sittser, a professor at a school in the Pacific Northwest. One night he was driving in his mini-van with his mom, who was in town visiting the family, his wife, and their four children. A drunk driver swerved to their side of the road. They had a head-on collision, and Jerry Sittser watched his mom, his wife, and his 4-year old daughter die before his very eyes. He was left as a forty-year old man to raise these three kids alone. God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life!
I could name story after story of incredible tragedy and calamity that has struck people. I think one of the greatest, most gut-wrenching, heart pounding questions that humans have asked since we first burst onto this planet is this: “If there is a God who is all-loving, and all powerful; how can He allow such random acts of pain, suffering, violence and sickness? If He’s all powerful, He would come in and take away the pain. He could cause the driver not to swerve and hit that family! If He was all good, then He would not allow the evil to happen in the first place! How do you reconcile that with God’s wonderful plan for your life?
Men and women from all cultures and all languages have been asking that question for centuries, and that’s one of the questions I want us to start to talk about today. We’ll follow that up in the next several weeks.
The question that is probably on your mind and mine is that although we are broken-hearted by other suffering; we want to know “Why am I suffering? Why am I experiencing the pain I am experiencing right now? Why do I have to deal with a great economic challenge right now? Why did I get laid off right now? Why did I grow up in a home that was so dysfunctional and so tweaked; I didn’t know whether I was going to be hugged or hit! Why me? What am I going to do about my stuff, and my suffering?”
One of the reasons I believe in God and that He has a wonderful plan for our lives is that the Bible deals very realistically with pain, suffering, evil and loss. It doesn’t sugar-coat it and put a nice little yellow smiley face on it! It deals with the raw, rugged reality of loss, catastrophic loss and suffering.
As a matter of fact, the oldest Book in the Bible, as you know, is not the Book of Genesis. Did you know that? The oldest Book in the Bible talks about this problem of evil, suffering and pain and gives an incredible description of a true life story of a man who endured a lot. His name was Job. This is his story as we start today.
If you have your Bibles, open to Job, Chapter 1. Go to the Book of Psalms in the middle of the Bible, and turn left. You’ll run into Job. Job, Chapter 1:1-5. The Verses are also on the screen. I call this first section of Job’s story “The Fabulous Life of Job.” Listen!
Job 1:1-5: “In the land of Uz, there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright. He feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons, and three daughters. He owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East. His sons used to take turns holding feasts in their homes. They would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. When it appeared a feasting had run its course, Job would send and have them purified. Early in the morning, he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking perhaps his children had sinned and cursed God in their hearts…This was Job’s regular custom.”
Let’s say those last two words together, “regular custom.” Job had it all! He had the big four, right? He had faith, he had family, he had fortune, and he had fame. He had all those camels and goats, and all the stuff he had, and servants. What does that mean today?
It means that Job was very, very rich. He was living in Beverly Hills, right? I mean he was the rock star that Nickelback sings about! He was living that kind of large life. Job had it going on. He was a great man! He was a righteous guy; church-going guy; giving guy; loving guy; family guy! He was in the game! He was a business man and he was respected! He was the greatest man in the East. He was on the front cover of Fortune, and Money, and Time! But what happened to Job?
Verse 6 and following, “One day, the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. (I told you this was going to take longer than one week!) The Lord said to Satan, ‘Where have you come from?’ Satan answered the Lord, ‘From roaming through the earth, and going back and forth in it.’ (Underline verse 8) Then the Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered My servant, Job? There’s no one on earth like him. He is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.’ ‘Does Job fear God for nothing?’ Satan replied. ‘Have you not put a hedge around him and his household, and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse You to Your face!’ The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well then! Everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself, do not lay a finger.’”
If verse 8 doesn’t shake you and your theology, or your lack of theology, to your boots then you’re not awake today. God brings up the name of Job to Satan, and God and Satan enter some type of crazy cosmic wager, and the wager is basically this: Satan is saying, “Well Dick Tracy, God! I would serve You if I had the bling-bling, and the fabulous life of Job, and the money, and the family, and the fame, and all the good help! Of course! But take all that away, and we’ll see what kind of man Job really is, and we’ll see that he’s really on the take! He’s just serving You because of what You give him!” And the Lord said, “Have at it.”
Verse 13, there are those two words again—“One day…” “One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the older brother’s house (That word “wine” in the Baptist translation is grape juice) a messenger came to Job and said, ‘The oxen were plowing, the donkeys were grazing nearby, and the Sabeans attacked and carried them off. They put the servants to the sword, and I’m the only one who’s escaped to tell you!’ While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, ‘The fire of God fell from the sky and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I’m the only one who has escaped to tell you!’ While he was still speaking, yet another servant came and said, ‘The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and carried them off! They put the servants to the sword, and I’m the only who has escaped to tell you!’
While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, ‘Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the older brother’s house, and suddenly a mighty windswept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them, and they are dead. I’m the only one who escaped to tell you.’”
Job went from the greatest man in the East—“Time Man of the Year”—to a pitiful beast that had lost everything! He lost his money, his savings, his 401K, his job, his company, his employees, and most importantly, he lost every single one of his children—dead in a moment! He had nothing left, except his wife and his health. Unbelievable! Suffering that pounds down on you like a relentless storm, or a rushing flood that keeps coming, and coming, and coming, and coming has been going on since the dawn of mankind. The reality of suffering is tough! It’s harsh! It’s real! It’s painful…It pushes us off into the deep end of life and makes us start asking questions, and making decisions that we never dared dream we’d have to make.
There are all kinds and varieties of loss and suffering. Please, please, please, during this five week series, please don’t come up to me afterwards and say, “Oh, Pastor, I’m really suffering! I’ve been sleeping around—I’m not married, but I got someone pregnant! God’s really punishing me…” You’re not suffering! You’re experiencing the consequences of doing something very stupid! God can forgive you of your stupidity, but you’re not suffering in this sense… The suffering we’re going to talk about in the next five weeks is not that kind of suffering. It’s not consequences we experience for doing dumb things, and we’ve all done that; I’ve done that, and you’ve done that. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about the kind of suffering that comes out of nowhere. We’re talking about the suffering that we really in one sense don’t deserve. We don’t deserve it, and we can’t figure it out! We’re mad, and we’re angry, and we’re in pain, and we’re wondering why it is happening? Primarily, “Why is it happening to me? God, where are You?”
As I’ve walked this journey with God on earth, I’ve discovered that suffering is a part of the package. It doesn’t matter if you’re an atheist, or an agnostic, or a Christian, a Buddhist, or whatever your religious perspective is, and they’re all religious perspectives. You’re going to have to deal with suffering, pain, and tragedy.
From the Christian world-view, I’ve discovered that suffering is a part of the package, but it’s not only a part of the package of following God; it’s also somehow a part of His wonderful, terrible, awful, beautiful plan for our lives.
Job lost it all! It was all gone! The company was gone. The money was gone. The sounds of his children laughing—gone. How was he going to respond? All Heaven and all Hell were waiting to see how Job was going to respond.
Verse 20, “At this, Job got up, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell to the ground in worship. He said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away.’” We just sang about that. “May the Name of the Lord be praised.” In all of this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrong doing.
How did Job respond when he was pushed out into the deep end of life? He responded with raw worship. Not “Zippity-do-dah! Praise God! He’s going to make everything better” worship! No! Raw worship! He looked to his beginning. He said, “I came into this world naked.” He looked at the very end—“I’m going to die naked” and he said “In between, I’m going to hold on to God! I’m going to hold on for His wonderful, mysterious, painful plan, no matter what, because I trust in Him!” Basically what Job was saying was this, “You know Lord, despite the fact that I’ve lost everything; somehow I believe that You are in this. God, somehow, You’re in this mess. God, somehow, You are in this pain that I am facing and going through. Somehow, You are in the middle of it.”
We can’t control the level and the amount of pain, suffering and loss we’re going to experience in life. We can’t control it! Suffering is a reality. It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when and how much… But one thing we can control, and that is our response to suffering. We can control our response to pain. One of the realities and truths I want to talk about in the following few weeks is, How do we respond? How do we make wise choices? Godly choices? Healthy choices that allow us somehow to transcend, and in some circumstances, allow even the pain and the hurt, and the chaos to actually transform our lives?
Jerry Sittser, who I mentioned earlier who lost his mom, his 4-year old daughter and his wife in that automobile accident years ago said this, 3 years after the accident, “It is not therefore the experience of loss that becomes the defining moment of our lives; for that is as inevitable as death. It is how we respond to loss that matters. That response will largely determine the quality, the direction, and the impact of our lives.”
It’s interesting as we look at Job, as we read this ancient story, this ancient piece of literature, of poetry if you will; we have an advantage that he didn’t have. First of all, we can read the story, and kind of like when you rent a DVD, we have the behind-the-scenes, how-they-made-the-film version. The director is talking, “Well, what’s really going on here is this cosmic wager that doesn’t make very much sense between God and Satan.” But we know that! Job doesn’t know that. Job is just experiencing the raw, rugged reality of suffering like we do—cold, tough, and seemingly random.
We also have another advantage that Job did not have. We know God’s response to our suffering. Christianity teaches that God has become a Man in Jesus Christ. He has entered into our world. Jesus entered into our pain; He entered into our loneliness; He entered into our rejection. He took the rejection; He took the pain; He took the violence upon Himself. He took all evil upon Himself on the Cross. He died, but He rose again.
Now, when we pray and cry out to God like Job did, in the middle of our pain, in the middle of our suffering; we know that we have a God who can relate to what we’re going through, because He Himself has been in the middle of it, and He has passed through the pain and suffering. So Jesus knows what it’s like. How did God respond to our pain and suffering? He responded with a suffering Savior who can give us strength; who can give us power; who can empathize, and sympathize with whatever we’re going through! That is the kind of God we worship! We don’t worship some impersonal force; some God who is way up there from a distance who is remote! We worship a God who has actually come near and entered into our world, and entered into our pain. It doesn’t solve the riddle; it doesn’t solve the mystery of the big question; but we know that God understands.
It’s not so much that God has a wonderful, five-step plan for your life and mine, though I believe He does have a plan! He does have a purpose. Maybe a better way to phrase it is that God doesn’t so much have a wonderful plan for our lives; but God has a wonderful Person for our lives. That Person is the God-Man, Jesus, the One with the scars on His hands, and feet, and side; the One who has conquered even death and the grave for us. He’s with us even when life pushes us out into the deep end. He’s with you.
Father, I thank You that You are with us; that You have not left us alone. God, whatever we’re going through right now, whether it’s big and massive, Job-like pain; whether it’s small rejection, and hurt—it doesn’t matter—pain is pain. We know that You are with us.
Father, right now, I just want to speak to anyone here who is feeling hopeless, and feeling they shouldn’t carry on and don’t need to carry on. God, show them that You are with them, and in them; that You have empowered them, and that they are surrounded by men, women and young people here today who will love and care for them, and help them, whatever it is they are going through, God. Lord, show every one of us here that You love us so much. We’re so valued that You sent Your Son to shed His life, and to shed His blood, and to experience unimaginable pain for us. God, You love us so much that You would even sacrifice Your Son for us. God, we are greatly valued. We are greatly loved! God, just help us to understand just one percent of that! It will help us today to make it through, to know that we are loved by You, and that as Paul said in Roman’s 8 that nothing—no amount of pain, no amount of death, no amount of sickness, nothing created or uncreated will be able to separate us from Your love. God, may we bask in that reality today. We cry out to You for strength! We cry out to You for power! We look to our left and right to brothers and people who are here who can help us; to so many people in this community and congregation that have been through hell and high water, and they’re smiling and living to tell about it. We thank You, God, for those incredible testimonies; those incredible mentors, those models that have lived it out right here at Second, God. I thank You for their faith. I thank You for their testimony. I thank You for what You are going to do in the following weeks as we continue to delve deeper into answers and clues to this whole issue.